The plot goes something like this: At a party hosted by the star of his latest play, famous playwright Peter Denver (Van Heflin) meets a young would-be writer Nancy Ordway (Peggy Ann Garner), while his wife, Iris (Gene Tierney) is away visiting her sick mother. Becoming friendly with the young writer, Peter eventually lets her use his apartment to write in, as she says it has the ambiance and positive-ness she needs. When Iris finally returns to the city and her husband, the two go to their home and find Nancy dead in the bathroom, seemingly having hanged herself. While Peter becomes the instant main suspect, and the investigating detective (George Raft) proves that Nancy has been murdered, the film ends with a shocking revelation about who the killer is after Peter avoids being taken into custody and determines to find out who killed the young girl - who wasn't so young and innocent as she seemed.
One of the things that film noir tends to do is to teach us life lessons. Here the life lesson is simple: No matter how pretentious the cocktail party of a supposed friend, never make a getaway by asking another wallflower out for dinner. While Black Widow is not superb or brilliant film noir, it is certainly an entertaining story that has some very good characterisations. Written and directed by Nunnally Johnson, the film assembles an impressive array of 1940s Hollywood talent, as along with Van Heflin, Ginger Rogers, and Gene Tierney, there's Peggy Ann Garner as the aspiring writer with grandiose plans, George Raft as a tough, no-nonsense, police detective, Otto Krueger as Garner's actor uncle, and Reginald Gardiner as Ginger Rogers's whipped hubby. Van Heflin plays a solid, reliable sort who gets caught up in the minor machinations of the young woman he meets at a party, and chews up the scenery in his role, but poor Gene Tierney is pretty much wasted in the role of his spouse, Iris, a recessive role of the elegant, but dutiful, wife. Peggy Ann Garner is certainly entertaining as Nancy Ordway, a would-be writer who literally comes along and stirs up the pot. The fact that she dies some 33 minutes into the film and then appears in flashback scenes only makes the movie into a who-dunnit, as she plays the role a bit too... pat. Ginger Rogers plays Lottie Marin, an aging diva, and gives a wonderful over-the-top performance that is entertaining to watch. The opening party scene is extremely enjoyable and entertaining, with Ginger Rogers ripping off several wonderful ripostes at the expense of actresss Bea Benaderet, and showing the sort of character she is. Striding around in haute couture outfits and speaking with a highfalutin' drama queen accent, she's a joy to watch for the most part. Reginald Gardiner does a good job playing Ginger's beleaguered spouse Brian, and comes across quite nicely in the story. For my tastes, George Raft does a poor turn as the detective, almost spitting out most of his lines like a shotgun staccato at times, and has almost no character. Shame, really, as Raft deserves a bit more than that in the film. Skip Homeier plays one of Peggy Ann Garner's love interests (and is more remembered by me for his turns in the classic Star Trek series), but I was impressed with Virginia Leith, as Homeier's sister and Garner's confidante, who does a good turn in the movie and is involved in a side plot that was never really dealt with properly. Her low, smoky voice is marvellous, and she and Van Heflin get some sparks of tension flying in the scenes they play together. (Sadly, I read that her career amounted to nothing for various reasons, but I enjoyed her role in this movie.)
Did I like the movie? Yes, for the most part. But make no mistake about it... while Van Heflin is technically the center of the movie (the patsy running around to prove his innocence), the truly juicy parts here go to the actresses, except for Gene Tierney, who is all but wasted in the film. Peggy Ann Garner's Nancy Ordway can't be described as a femme fatale in this one, because she has little bite in the film, and comes across as too mousy for most of the movie. Despite the movie's suggestive title, she is not the insect of the title. (And no, I won't reveal who is, although anyone who wants to know can talk to me about this separately, I suppose.) Even Virginia Leith sparkles in her bit role in the film more than Peggy Ann Garner does, and that says something.
That said, the true essence of Black Widow lies in the magnificent cinemascope photography, colours, and the visual effects. Most of the scenes have large windows or terraces that open wide on the spectacular New York scenery in the background. Apparently, some of the crew spent a month in New York City shooting extensive background and location footage so as to give the film that authentic Manhattan feel. Heck, even the furniture of the various apartments is carefully chosen and placed, to excellent effect. There is even a brief scene in a dark bar that is simply superb, that I just can't describe adequately here.
When it comes down to it, some folks would call Black Widow pedestrian as far as film noir goes, simply because of the fact that by 1954, the plot had been done before. Each of the characters portrayed herein is of a "type" found in noir quite often, but given an interesting twist or spin. The movie does cheat a little bit, avoiding giving the viewer some information that is essential to understanding the characters, but that is forgiveable, when the whole picture is taken into account. Some would argue that Black Widow was a dull movie with a predictable plot, but I personally found it entertaining despite all of its flaws. Even if there wasn't a widow in it at all! :)